Near Record Ice Cover on the Great Lakes

Persistent frigid temperatures this winter across the Mid-West and Northeast have caused many rivers and lakes to freeze.  These include the Great Lakes – the largest group of fresh water lakes on the planet.

According to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, 91.8% of the Great Lakes are currently covered with ice.  That is the second highest percentage on record.  The largest was 94.7% in 1979. On average, peak ice coverage each winter is roughly 51%.

This extensive ice cover has its pluses and minuses.  On one hand, it has reduced the amount of lake effect snow – the heavy precipitation produced when cold air blows across the expansive and relatively warm lake water.  When the lakes are frozen, moisture cannot be evaporated and this process shuts down.  On the other hand, it has slowed shipping traffic, which has economic impacts.  Also, given their massive size, the frozen lakes will likely keep regional temperatures cooler than average this spring.

While this year’s ice cover on the Great Lakes is near record-breaking, researchers say the ice extent varies annually and that there has been an overall decline since the early 1970’s.

Ice covers more than 90% of the Great Lakes. Image Credit: NOAA/Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Ice covers more than 90% of the Great Lakes.                                                                                      Image Credit: NOAA/Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Weather and Art: Love of Winter

Winter, like all seasons, has its pluses and minuses. With freezing temperatures and accumulating snow, it can produce travel problems and other difficulties. On the other hand, it also creates the opportunity for a variety of outdoor activities like skiing, sledding, ice-skating, snowshoeing, and of course, the Winter Olympics.

Love of Winter, a painting by George Bellows from 1914, captures the spirit of those who embrace the season. A personal favorite, it portrays the movement of skaters on a frozen pond.  Filled with activity and color, the scene conveys the joy of being outdoors on a crisp winter day.

"Love of Winter", 1914 by George Bellows.  Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Love of Winter, 1914 by George Bellows. Oil on Canvas (32.5 x 40.5 inches).                                                    The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.

A Wild Week of Wintry Weather

Coming on the heels of a very snowy January, a series of winter storms slammed the midwest and northeastern U.S. this week.  From snow to sleet to freezing rain, the region saw a bit of everything.

Here in New York City, Monday’s storm dumped 8 inches of heavy, wet snow in Central Park – setting a new daily snowfall record. Only two days later, another weather system brought the Big Apple a wintry mix that included 4 inches of snow topped with about 0.25 inches of ice.

These two storms brought the city’s monthly snowfall total up to 12 inches and it is only the first week of February.  On average, we usually receive 8.8 inches for the entire month. Overall, local snowfall has been running above average this winter season with 40.3 inches of accumulation to date.

While more snow is on deck for the weekend, NYC is not expecting significant accumulation, contrary to earlier reports.

Winter Storm in the Deep South

A rare winter storm paralyzed large sections of the southeastern United States yesterday.  Serious impacts from snow, sleet, and freezing rain were felt from the Gulf Coast to Virginia.

According to the NWS, 2.6 inches of snow fell in Atlanta, GA – a new daily record for the region’s largest city. As a whole, the Deep South is not accustomed to wintry precipitation and most cities and towns are not equipped to deal it.  Salt spreaders and snowplows are in short supply across the region.  As a result, major roads turned into sheets of ice creating very hazardous travel conditions.

The timing of the storm made the situation even worse.  Arriving in the afternoon, many people were caught on the roads trying to make their way home. Officials have reported hundreds of traffic accidents and stranded vehicles.  Many people were even forced to shelter in place overnight in cars, schools, and stores.

Snow and ice bring travel to a stand still near Atlanta, GA.  Image Credit: Guardian LV

Snow and ice bring travel to a stand still near Atlanta, GA.  Image Credit:

Ice on the Hudson River

The New York City section of the Hudson River almost never freezes completely.  But, with high temperatures only in the teens the past few days, the river is currently churning with ice.

Near the city, the Hudson is an estuary. Fresh water flows down from the north and salt water moves in from the Atlantic Ocean to the south.  Since salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh water, it is usually only the fresh water, floating on top of the denser salt water, which freezes. This process forms ice floes – sheets of floating ice that oscillate with the tide.

The last time the Hudson River froze completely, according to historical records, was January 25, 1821.  The temperature in the city that day was a frigid -14°F.

NY Waterways Ferry on Icy Hudson River

Looking west, toward NJ, a NY Waterway Ferry navigates the Icy Hudson River.                                                                         Image sent in by David M, a Weather Gamut reader.


Detail of ice floes on Hudson River, January 23, 2014.                                                                        Image Credit: The Weather Gamut.

How Road Salt Works

A major snowstorm is expected here in the northeast tomorrow.  In preparation, salt trucks have been out in force across the region.

Rock Salt – large pieces of NaCl – removes snow and ice from roads and walkways by lowering the freezing point of water.  Essentially, it melts frozen precipitation into a briny liquid and makes it harder to re-freeze, even if the air temperature is below freezing. In extremely cold conditions, however, when temperatures fall below 15°F, rock salt becomes less effective at de-icing surfaces.

While salting roads can help reduce traffic accidents, it does have negative environmental impacts. So, as with diet, it is best to use salt sparingly.